Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast

A Way of Life Is Disappearing in Dixie

Last Man: Bert Rosenbush Jr. is a local celebrity of sorts. He’s the only Jew left in the small Alabama town of Demopolis.
courtesy of goldring/woldenberg institute of southern life
Last Man: Bert Rosenbush Jr. is a local celebrity of sorts. He’s the only Jew left in the small Alabama town of Demopolis.

By Seth Berkman

Published April 28, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
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The highest point of tension came in 1978, when local blacks began a boycott of white-owned Lexington businesses. According to Berman’s book, a group of Franciscan nuns who supported the boycott marched in front of Jewish businesses with swastikas. Cohen said their intention was to try and intimidate Jewish merchants, but it did not work; many members of the black community chastised the nuns for their actions. Eventually, Cohen met with a local black leader to quell tensions and end the boycott. Cohen said the president of the local chapter of the NAACP supported the Jewish businesses, while a rabbi from Jackson thought Cohen should lend his support to the boycotters.

Rockoff said Southern Jews often felt pressure from Northeastern Jews during the civil rights era. “Southern rabbis were in a very difficult position,” he said. “Often times, their congregants didn’t want them to speak out, and sometimes they did and got a very negative response. Yet they’d go to a national conference and get criticized for not doing more.”

Southern Jews’ mostly evasive position on segregation did not appear to affect their standing among either the black or white communities. Today, non-Jewish residents of these towns are sympathetic to the demise of Jewish communities.

“Basically, the commercial downtown of the small Southern town I grew up in still stands, and originated thanks to enterprising Jewish merchants,” said William Gantt, a white, non-Jewish Demopolis native who had his first summer job at a Jewish-owned retail store downtown.

In Natchez, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life owns the local synagogue, which congregation leaders hope will be made into a museum after the Jewish population is gone. In Selma, there have been talks with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life about taking over the local synagogue, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs would have to be spent, and additional money would need to be raised for an endowment fund, according to 70-year-old Selma resident Steve Grossman.

Grossman said there is constant talk of what will happen to the synagogue when the Jewish population is gone from Selma. The youngest member of the congregation today is in his 60s. All members of the congregation, said Grossman, are opposed to any sale or transfer of the property that would lead to it being taken over by a church, which is what occurred in Demopolis, just one hour away. Today, the congregation still draws up to 60 visitors for High Holy Days services. But a majority of them are non-Jews simply curious about Jewish life.

Rockoff foresees a broader loss once the last Jew passes in these towns. “You won’t have non-Jews growing up around Judaism,” he said. “I have found in my travels, people have expressed to me: ‘We really missed them. They were so involved in things. Our community is poorer without them.’ ”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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